dialogue, Grammar, Self Edits, Uncategorized

You Can’t Shrug a Line

One of my favorite lines from Huckleberry Finn is “You can’t pray a lie.”

That doesn’t have much to do with my topic, though I’m sure I could make a good connection if I wanted to. I just like how it goes along with my title, “You can’t shrug a line.”

So. Dialogue tags. In my editing, I see a lot of this:

  • “I don’t know,” I shrugged.
  • “You bet,” he smiled.
  • “Well,” she leaned closer, “we can try.”
  • She giggled, “I’d love to!”

And I’m sorry to say, they’re all wrong. Yes, they seem to make sense when you read them, but none of the verbs used here—shrugged, smiled, or leaned—are ways you can deliver a line. You can’t shrug “I don’t know.” You can shrug before, after, or while you say it, but it’s not how you’re saying the line. Even laughing: though we sometimes laugh while we say something, we don’t actually laugh the words.

So here’s a little grammar tidbit and a trick. Verbs are either transitive or intransitive. That means they either have an object or they don’t. You hit a ball: hit is transitive, and the ball is the object. You scowl: scowl is intransitive, because you don’t scowl something. In dialogue, the spoken lines—the words in quotations—are the object of a transitive verb, such as say, reply, answer, ask, yell, scream, blurt, retort, bellow, whisper, sing, etc.

You can test whether your dialogue tag verb is transitive by asking “What  did they ___?” For example, if you want to use “scream,” What did he scream?  He screamed, “Get out of here!” That definitely works. On the other hand, What did she lean? Uh…no. What did she smile? Well, she probably smiled with her mouth, but she didn’t really smile anything. What did she laugh? I know this one is tempting, because laughing is a vocal thing. But it’s not actually how you say words. It doesn’t make sense to say “This is what she laughed.” Laughing can happen during speaking, but technically you don’t laugh words. (Though you may disagree and choose to use this one anyway.) How about What did he shrug? Well, he probably shrugged his shoulders. So while it is a transitive verb, the object isn’t the dialogue; it’s his shoulders, though that doesn’t have to be stated.

Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this problem. Several possible fixes, in fact.

  1. You can simply split the sentence, adding the action before or after the dialogue with a period instead of a comma: “I don’t know.” I shrugged. Sometimes it works better to put the action first: I shrugged. “I don’t know.” In this example, you could also add a descriptive tag: I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I admitted. (What did I admit? “I don’t know.”)
  2. You can insert “said” with a comma and change the verb to the “-ing” form: “I don’t know,” I said, shrugging.
  3. You can add “with” and change the verb to a noun: “I don’t know,” I said with a shrug.
  4. For interrupted dialogue with action inserted in the middle of a sentence (such as the leaning example above), em dashes are often the best way to go: “Well—” she leaned closer “—we can try.” In this example, it shows that she pauses for a moment to lean forward. You could also use ellipses in place of the em dashes for a more trailing-off effect. If you don’t want the character to actually pause, but want to insert action, the em dashes go outside of the quotation marks: “I know that you’ve”—she blushed—“said things about me.”

While there are plenty of verbs that can be transitive or intransitive that might give you pause and might not have a hard and fast rule (huff, gasp, snarl, growl), hopefully just being able to stop and do this little test on them will help you decide whether or not it’s the way someone can deliver a line.  And luckily, if you’re intent on using them as dialogue tags anyway and call it a style choice, that’s up to you! (she said with a shrug).


Self Edits

On the Murder of Darlings

When I was a photographer, it could be torture going though the hundreds of photos I’d taken at a session and get rid of most of them. I tried to give clients around 30 images, but there were always so many more great photos than just 30! I would transfer them all from the memory card to a folder on my computer, then pull them up 10 or so at a time in Photoshop, edit the best ones, and delete the rest.

And that’s where my problem was.


Instead of only keeping the best ones from the start, I let them all into the folder and then had to delete the ones I wasn’t keeping. Some of them were bad composition, out of focus, or too dark, but most of them were good photos—just not the very best. It was hard to get rid of them. They were my darlings. I’d made them; I liked them; and I wanted to keep them for always.

Then I started editing a different way. I would open up the memory card and go through them looking for the very best photos. The ones I’d want to put on my website. The ones I knew my clients would fall in love with. The ones that jumped out at me. Whittling it down to 30 was easy that way. The rest would stay on the card in case I ended up needing them, but only those best ones went into the folder to be edited. Instead of 25 fabulous ones and 15 more pretty good ones, my clients ended up with only the very best photos I’d taken. They were less overwhelmed and more satisfied that way.

William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” (Stephen King famously quoted this, as have other writers; in fact, Faulkner wasn’t even the first to say it, but that’s beside the point.) Most writers have to remind themselves of this maxim. Often. Because it’s hard. You made those precious words; you strung them together with thought and care and poured your soul into that beautiful scene. These words and sentences are your babies, your darlings.

But sometimes they don’t work. The sentence doesn’t work, the scene doesn’t work, or maybe the whole chapter doesn’t work. It doesn’t do its job of propelling the reader seamlessly through the story. It slows it down or doesn’t fit with the tone or sequence. Maybe it’s a little self-indulgent. Whatever the problem, it’s got to go.

When it comes to the killing of darlings, maybe it’s time to turn your thinking around. Don’t think of it as deleting parts you love; think of it as keeping the best parts. Make sure every little word and every character interaction does its job so well that those other words aren’t even necessary. Make it so that superfluous sentences have no place among the succinct, expressive prose you have created. Choose your words with care.

But have no fear. You don’t even have to delete those darlings for good. Just give them a new home, in a deleted scenes folder. Cut and paste them into a new document that can live on your computer forever, a testament to your diligence and wisdom as a growing author.

Write a book where every part is the best part.

Grammar, Self Edits, Uncategorized

For the Love of Commas

Comma_FinalYes, commas. Let’s talk about them a little bit. Most writers don’t use them enough. There are those few comma-happy writers, of course, but I’ve noticed a few places where lots of people neglect these handy little guys. And yes, it is important, because if a comma is missing, it can cause a reader to read the sentence wrong, then have to go back and re-read it when they realize that wasn’t quite right. You don’t want to do that to people too much; it gets distracting. There are three main offenders I see a lot with comma underuse.

1.Hooking up two sentences. If you have two or more parts of a sentence that could be sentences on their own, you can join them either with a semicolon (;) or with a comma and a conjunction (and, if, but, etc.). The main exception is when both parts are really short. One test I like to use: did the subject change? If my sentence is “I ran around the park and decided to hop on the swing,” I didn’t change subjects—I did both actions. But if you switch subjects: “I ran around the park, and my dog decided to hop on the swing,” you need a comma. Otherwise a reader might see “I ran around the park and my dog…” and first think that I ran around the park and around my dog. They’d figure it out pretty quickly, but it’s jarring. (I guess a dog hopping on a swing is jarring, too, but that’s what popped into my head.)

2. Before and after direct address. There’s a difference between “I don’t know about that cowboy” and “I don’t know about that, cowboy.” The first is talking about the cowboy; the second is talking to the cowboy. If you have a character addressing another one, commas always set off the person’s name (or whatever they’re being called, like “cowboy” or “kid” or “you big jerk”).

  • At the beginning of a sentence: “Janie, would you come here please?”
  • In the middle of a sentence: “I was on my way home, Mom, but the guys wanted to have a snowball fight.”
  • At the end of the sentence: “Don’t forget your keys, honey.”

3.Added info. When you add something into the middle of a sentence, like this clause right here between the commas, you need to set it off with commas. Before and after. A lot of people add the comma before but forget the one after. Some examples:

  • “I like chocolate, seeing as how it’s like eating a piece of heaven, but I’m trying to stop.”
  • “She came out of her room, her hair looking like a rat’s nest, and plopped down on the couch.” (My six-year-old inspired me with that one this morning.)
  • “I called Bartholomew, hoping to reassure him, but he didn’t answer.”

These are definitely not the only times you need commas (they also belong in lists, after an introductory word or phrase, and so on), just the ones I find missing most often. Remember: commas are your friend. Let them help you!

Self Edits, Uncategorized

The Magic of Reading Your Writing Out Loud

When I worked as a writing tutor in college, we always had the students read their papers out loud to us. Most of them groaned when we told them that was how we worked, but once they’d done it and saw the pure genius of it, they were happy to do it the next time around. I still read out loud to myself when I’m editing, and I have my teenage daughter do it when I help her with essays. (Okay, she usually finagles her way out of it, but I always mean to have her do it.) Reading your work out loud is a great way to catch a lot of your own mistakes before sending it off to an editor. The more you can do on your own, the more your editor can help you take it to the next level without getting bogged down in grammar lessons.

Reading your story (or essay or any writing, really) out loud will do several things for you:

It will force you to slow down and read every word.  Or at least, more than you would when reading silently. Our brains read much more quickly than we speak, and we often assume that words are there when they aren’t, or skip over a small mistake or repeated word, as our brains fill in with what we expect to be there. That doesn’t happen as easily when you’re reading at the pace of speaking. You’re more likely to catch those little things that you’d normally skip right over.

It will show you awkward wording. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll read a sentence out loud and stop to fix it.  Students reading their papers out loud to me in the writing center would stop and say, “Wait, what?” when they realized what they’d written. I often wouldn’t have to say anything; they’d notice it and fix it on their own. We know what sounds good, but sometimes we don’t hear it in our heads when we write it, or when we read silently.

It will help you hear what you’ve only been seeing. I recently had an author tell me that she doesn’t hear names in her head when she writes them; she just sees them. So when people ask her how to pronounce her made-up names, she’s not quite sure. Lots of readers (like me) hear the words in their heads when reading, and it’s frustrating not knowing how it’s supposed to sound, or trying several different pronunciations and not landing one that makes sense. It’s distracting. Read it out loud and you’ll know if it sounds wrong or if it’s too hard to figure out the pronunciation.  (On a side note, it would be ever so helpful if you’d put a pronunciation guide in there somewhere if you’ve created a world with crazy names!)

It will bring the dialogue to life. Go ahead, read it in your best accent and with feeling. Be the narrator and all the characters. Your dramatic side can’t wait! You might think a line of dialogue sounds great, but if you read it out loud and it just sounds cheesy, even when you try varying intonations, something probably needs to change. Dialogue walks a fine line between realistic enough to believe and fake enough to sound perfect, and reading out loud will let you know if you’ve achieved that balance. Make sure to pay attention to your descriptions of tone of voice and expression to be sure it’s what you meant to portray.  Can you act it out? Does it ring true?

If you feel like a freak reading it out loud, do it when nobody is around. Or maybe it will be easier to read it to somebody. Maybe just the dog. Whatever helps you hear it more clearly will help you see it more clearly, maybe even in a new light.dog-734689_1920